A few hours online could reduce an older adult’s chances of succumbing to the twin plagues of loneliness and depression by more than 30 percent, says a recent analysis published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.
“It all has to do with older persons being able to communicate, to stay in contact with their social networks and just not feel lonely.” says lead study author Sheila Cotten, professor of telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University (MSU), in a press release. Cotten’s team tracked the rates of internet usage, loneliness and depression in a group of more than 3,000 seniors who were part of the larger “Health and Retirement” survey, a nationwide survey of 22,000 older adults conducted every two years.
Loneliness can have serious health consequences. And, with 43 percent of Americans over 55 feeling lonely on a regular basis (according to a University of California, San Francisco study) it’s essential to look for new ways to keep people in touch with their friends and family, especially as they age.
While interacting with loved ones online wasn’t able to completely eradicate depression in seniors who were already suffering from the mental disorder in the MSU study, it did minimize some of the symptoms, particularly for those elders who were living on their own.
Tips to avoid online perils
More and more aging adults are recognizing the positives of using the internet to keep in touch with friends and family. A new study from the Pew Research Center has concluded that, for the first time ever, more than half (59 percent) of Americans age 65 and older are online.
Despite its benefits, there’s no denying that the internet is not a safe place, especially for unwary seniors who aren’t familiar with all of the tricks that hackers and scammers use to commit identity theft.
Here are a few tips to pass on to your aging loved ones about avoiding online scams:
Stay up to date on current scams: The Federal Trade Commission’s website has areas where you can learn about new forms of fraud that are being committed online and offline.
Don‘t share too much: Social media sites are great places to keep up with family and friends of all ages. But, while it’s tempting to post a bunch of pictures of you and your grandchildren, be aware that any information and images you share on your social media profile can be found by hackers who can then use that information to impersonate a family member and con personal information or money out of you. This is often how the widespread “Granny Scam” is perpetrated.
Create strong passwords (and don‘t share them): While it may seem like the online world is full of one password after another, it’s essential to take the time to develop strong passwords that only you can understand. Think of a phrase that has special meaning to you (so it will be easier to remember). Take the first letter of each word to create the password. You can also substitute numbers for words, for example “I like to eat hot dogs for breakfast” can become il2ehd4b.
Always encrypt your data: When purchasing products and services online you will often have to provide credit card or bank account information. While this is never 100 percent safe to do, if you only use sites that show a little padlock icon in the status bar, you’ll know that your personal data is being encrypted—scrambled—before being sent. Encrypted data is much harder (although not impossible) for would-be scammers to hack.
Don‘t forget to wipe your old computers: With the rapid pace of technological development, computers and mobile device can become virtually obsolete in just a few years. When disposing of an old electronic, be sure to wipe it first, to avoid having identifying information scraped by a scammer. Software is available to help you remove data from an old device and transfer it to a new one.
Too much of a good thing
Another important factor to keep in mind when encouraging an elder to go online is the old maxim: “You can have too much of a good thing.”
A virtual life, while helpful for those who can’t get out and about like they used to, is no replacement for a real life. “If you sit in front of a computer all day, ignoring the roles you have in life and the things you need to accomplish as part of your daily life, then it’s going to have a negative impact on you,” Cotten says.
If your loved one is reluctant to leave their screen, try suggesting that they use email and social media to set up a face-to-face get together with their friends. Invite them out to a local park or museum to take photographs that they can then post online for family and friends to enjoy. Combining the connection power of the internet with real-life experiences can help keep an elder mentally and physically engaged in the world around them.
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